FEAR BY ANGELO MOSSO

INTRODUCTION

I

Never shall I forget that evening! From behind the curtains of a glass door I peered into the large amphitheatre crowded with people. It was my first appearance as a lecturer, and most humbly did I repent having undertaken to try my powers in the same hall in which my most celebrated teachers had so often spoken. All I had to do was to communicate the results of some of my investigations into the physiology of sleep, and yet, as the hour drew nearer, stronger waxed within me the fear that I should become confused, lose myself, and finally stand gaping, speechless before my audience. My heart beat violently, its very strings seemed to tighten, and my breath came and went, as when one looks down into a yawning abyss. At last it struck eight. As I cast a last glance at my notes, I became aware, to my horror, that the chain of ideas was broken and the links lost beyond recall. Experiments performed a hundred times, long periods which I had thought myself able to repeat word for word—all seemed forgotten, swept away as though it had never been.

My anguish reached a climax. So great was my perturbation that the recollection of it is dim and shadowy. I remember seeing the usher touch the handle of the door, and that, as he opened it, I seemed to feel a puff of wind in my face; there was a singing in my ears, and then I found myself near a table in the midst of an oppressive silence, as though, after a plunge in a stormy sea, I had raised my head above water and seized hold of a rock in the centre of the vast amphitheatre.

How strange was the sound of my first words! My voice seemed to lose itself in a great wilderness, words, scarce fallen from my lips, to tremble and die away. After a few sentences jerked out almost mechanically, I perceived that I had already finished the introduction to my speech, and discovered with dismay that memory had played me false just at that point where I had thought myself most sure; but there was now no turning back, and so, in great confusion, I proceeded. The hall seemed enveloped in mist. Slowly the cloud began to lift, and here and there in the crowd I could distinguish benevolent, friendly faces, and on these I fixed my gaze, as a man struggling with the waves clings to a floating spar. I could discern, too, the attentive countenances of eager listeners, holding a hand to their ear as though unwilling to lose a single word, and nodding occasionally in token of affirmation. And lastly, I saw myself in this semicircle, alone, humbled, discouraged, dejected—like a sinner at confession. The first greatest emotional disturbance was over; but my throat was parched, my cheeks burned, my breath came in gasps, my voice was strained and trembling. The harmony of the period was often interrupted in the middle by a rapid inspiration, or painfully drawn out, as the chest was compressed to lend force to the last words of a sentence. But to my joy, in spite of all, the ideas began to unfold of their own accord, following each other in regular order along the magic thread to which I blindly clung without a backward glance, and which was to lead me out of the labyrinth. Even the trembling of the hands, which had made me shake the instruments and drawings I had from time to time to exhibit, ceased at last. A heaviness crept over my whole body, the muscles seemed to stiffen, and my knees shook.

Towards the end I felt the blood begin to circulate again. A few minutes passed of which I remember nothing save a great anxiety. My trembling voice had assumed the conclusive tone adopted at the close of a speech. I was perspiring, exhausted, my strength was failing; I glanced at the tiers of seats, and it seemed to me that they were slowly opening in front of me,like the jaws of a monster ready to devour me as soon as the last word should re-echo within its throat.

II

He who one day will write a book on the physiology of the orator will render a great service to society—to us who have to pay so dearly for ‘that extravagant idolatry of ourselves’ which incites us to speak in public. But such a work must be a complete treatise, a mirror in which each might see himself and learn to what ridicule he exposes himself, what punishment awaits him, when he mounts the rostrum uncalled for and untried. Each must see himself with pallid cheeks, perturbed, distorted countenance, suffering from that unhealthy excitement which, like a storm of emotion, breaks out in trembling. Before entering the lists let each feel the oppression on the chest, the cough, the compression of the bladder, the loss of appetite, the unquenchable thirst, the dizziness which will blind him; and lastly, let each endure in advance all the innumerable gradations of pitying sympathy awakened in the audience by his own timidity.

We can better understand the influence of the emotions on the organism if we consider the long novitiate, the unwearying efforts and the countless trials of even the greatest orators before they attained to self-control, and to the simple end of preserving before the public the same intonation, gestures, and persuasive force which are natural to them when in thecompany of their friends or the retirement of the family circle.

I have seen men of brilliant intelligence standing rigid, their arms hanging at their sides like recruits, their features distorted and their eyes fixed on the ground, stammering and grinding out their speech, so as to move one to pity. Others, known to their intimates as jovial anecdotists, make one turn away one’s eyes in compassion when, on important occasions, they stop short in the middle of a sentence, gasp, repeat the same word four or five times, struggling for utterance, and at last stand still open-mouthed, clutching the table or their watch-chain, as though in search of an anchor of salvation. Others, again, go to a banquet and succeed in damping all gaiety. At the very beginning it is evident that food is swallowed with difficulty, their speech lies heavy on their heart, they are nervous and tortured by the fear that their memory may leave them in the lurch. One pities them when at last they rise pale and trembling, then speak confusedly, jerkily, swaying to and fro with wide-open eyes, as though stupefied with agitation.

A former master of mine, once professor of sacred rhetoric at the Athenæum of Turin, could, at the beginning of a nervous affection, only speak sitting, owing to the excessive trembling of his legs; and at last he was obliged to renounce the triumphs which his masterly and enviable gift of eloquence procured him, as he was unable, after having concluded his speech, either to rise, to descend from the cathedra, or to walk.

But why does the simple fact that we are standing before the public produce such disquietude within us? Why is it followed by such a far-reaching disturbance of the organic functions? We say it is the nerves, the brain, anxiety, the physical nature of man which we cannot control. But there is confusion also in our ideas. What is this much-praised force of will, this power of the soul which makes us so bold when alone and yet so cowardly before the eyes of a few people?

I confess the problem is difficult, and I believe the easiest way to a partial solution is to analyse without prejudice what we all know about cerebral activity, and to see what physiologists have discovered in studying the emotions and the physical phenomena of thought.

III

Before, however, entering the field of experimental physiology, I allow myself the following remarks. In strict justice the names of many physiologists should be repeatedly mentioned, but I prefer to do so only from time to time, as I fear the interruption of the sentence by names and notes might be tiresome to those whose eye is unaccustomed to the perusal of scientific books, nor do I think there are many who would be curious to know the paternity of every assertion I shall make use of. In order, however, that no undeserved merit may be ascribed to me, I shall, without further ceremony, write in the first person only when an experience or an idea of my own is to be communicated, so that, if I shall be at fault, science may not be held responsible for a personal error.

The first really important book on the physiology of the passions was written by Descartes, the great restorer of science, who, with his prodigious force of intellect, embraced all branches of knowledge, and was at once mathematician, physicist, and physiologist. His is the honour of having shown that the old Aristotelian philosophy, then prevalent in the schools, had never solved one of the problems respecting life. In the treatise upon ‘The Passions of the Soul,’ the following words appear in a section in which he investigates the manner in which the passions are excited: ‘If the appearance of an animal is very strange and frightful—that is, if it has much resemblance with those things which were originally hurtful to the body, it will excite in the mind the passion of fear, then of boldness or of horror, according to the different temperaments of the body or the force of the soul, and according as one has been able or not to provide one’s self with the means of defence, or of flight from those dangerous things with which the present impression has points of resemblance. This in some men disposes the brain in such a manner that the spirits, excited by the image and formed in the pineal gland (or central part of the brain), pass thence, partly to the nerves which serve to turn the body and move the legs in flight, and partly to those nerves which enlarge and contract the valves of the heart, or stimulate the other parts, whence the blood is sent to them in such a manner that this blood, otherwise elaborated, sends spirits to the brain capable of fomenting and increasing the passion of fear; that is, they are able to keep open or reopen the pores of the brain which conduct them to the nerves.’[1]

No one before Descartes had had so simple a conception of the mechanism by which the involuntary movements accompanying the emotions are produced, and he it is who laid the foundations of the physiological study of the mind. Two centuries and a half have already passed, and his work still remains a monument worthy of all admiration. Science has advanced so greatly that perhaps no one now who wished to learn the elements of physiology would study his treatise on man, and yet none who know the history of science but are moved by those marvellous pages out of which breathes that spirit of innovation which has fertilised the science of centuries. Malebranche relates that when he first took up the treatise—’L’homme et la formation du fœtus,’ by Descartes—the new ideas it stirred up within him gave him a pleasure so intense, and so filled him with admiration, that his heart palpitated and he was obliged to pause from time to time.

Other two no less celebrated names must also be mentioned here, on account of the strictly scientific character they have given to the study of the emotions. These are Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin. Next to these stands Paolo Mantegazza, with his celebrated researches on pain and his book on physiognomy and mimicry, dedicated to ‘Charles Darwin, who, by his immortal work on the expression of the emotions, opened up a limitless horizon to the science of the future.’ The homage of the illustrious Italian physiologist is worthy of the great English master and philosopher. Darwin was a man of genius and at the same time one of the greatest masters of the popular style of authorship. His force lies in the caution with which he made statements and drew conclusions, thus avoiding all absolute formulæ, and this will always make him an incomparable model. Dogmatism, that worm which gnaws and sterilises mediocre minds, which corrupts the rationality of the many—dogmatism, that plague of science, had no hold on him, Darwin knew it not. He candidly shows the public the gaps in science, criticises himself unmercifully, and does not hesitate to point out the defects in doctrines he himself propounded. In reading his books one is inclined to think that he was continually haunted by the fear of being misunderstood by readers insufficiently educated for the comprehension of deeper scientific questions. He was so careful, so temperate in his assertions, so cautious in his inductions, that in his book, ‘The Expression of the Emotions,’ which, in my opinion, is one of the less excellent of his works, he leaves not one point on which one can conscientiously contradict him, by taxing him with an error.

And if we are able now to add to his discoveries and to correct some of the judgments in his works, it is only thus because science marches onward with such giant strides that we, although we were his contemporaries, belong even now to a later age, as the context of this work will more clearly show. The theory of evolution will always remain the foundation-stone of modern science, but certain principles formulated by Spencer and Darwin will be modified as our knowledge of the adaptation of organs to their functions increases.

IV

Darwin attributed, I think, too much importance to the will considered as the cause of expression. We younger physiologists are more mechanical; we examine the organism more minutely, and it is in the structure of the organs that we seek the reasons of their functions.

I shall here give an example of this different way in which I have explained a few phenomena.

Rabbits are, as is well known, extremely timid animals, and it is remarkable that no other blushes and grows pale so easily as the rabbit. The changes in circulation produced by psychical impressions and by the emotions are more observable in the ears than in the face, as is indeed the case with many men. In Northern Italy, after someone has received a vigorous scolding, I have heard the popular expression used: ‘He caught it hot enough to make his ears turn red.’ In the middle of the auricle of the rabbit’s ear there is an artery, running from the base to the summit, which ramifies and winds in such a manner as to form two veins on the edge of the auricle. In 1854, Moritz Schiff observed that this artery showed alternate movements of contraction and expansion, not corresponding to the systole and diastole of the heart. If one looks at the rabbit’s ear against the light, from time to time one sees the artery decrease in diameter, until at last it quite disappears, then it increases again, and, as it swells, it expands all its branches, so that the whole ear becomes of a vivid red and also warmer. This fulness of blood in the ear lasts a few seconds, then artery and branches contract and the redness gradually dies away. Schiff called this artery an accessory heart, because he imagined that the contractions and expansions observed by him in the vessels of the ear were to promote a better circulation of blood in the ear of the rabbit, just as the heart does for the rest of the body.

In repeating Schiff’s observations I used certain precautions which others would perhaps have thought superfluous. Instead of watching the rabbit while holding it in my hands, I thought to spare it all emotion, by enabling myself to observe the ears without its becoming aware of the fact. For this purpose I had a cage made in such a manner that it fitted exactly into the inside frame of a window, and whereas it was impossible for the rabbits to look into the room, I could watch quite easily, without being seen, through a few holes in the cage. By means of this simple arrangement I could observe the rabbits at my leisure, and study their habits while they were quiet, without a suspicion that they were being noticed. The first time that I so watched them, I saw, to my surprise, that the ears were no longer so red as when the animals were startled by feeling themselves seized and held fast in my hands on the table. The rapid movements of dilatation and contraction in the blood-vessels of the ear, the sudden blushing and loss of colour so characteristic of the timidity of these animals, were no longer observable. The artery of the ear remained dilated and of a vivid red for a long time, often for hours. I noticed this especially in summer, when the animals were uniformly tranquil. A state of absolute repose, however, is not always accompanied by an expansion of the blood-vessels. All rabbits have not ears equally red or pale at the same time and under the same conditions. A similar circumstance may be noticed at any time in the faces of men. Young rabbits blush more easily than old ones. Often while watching the buck and doe with the young ones, one could see the ruddy ears of the latter turn pale every now and then, while the former, like old people with us, remained calm and had pale ears. But even amongst the young ones of the same litter, one finds considerable differences in the facility for blushing.

At the market I chose those animals that blushed most easily and frequently, just as the slave-dealer picks out for the harem those women who charm by blushing more vividly than the others. If one studies attentively the loss of colour in the ears of a rabbit when perfectly quiet, one can nearly always discover the cause in some external circumstance. Often while the animal has red ears and is breathing quietly, one notices a sudden change in the rhythm of respiration; the rabbit lifts its head, looks around, or sniffs; a contraction of the blood-vessels follows, and the ears become pale. After a few minutes, if nothing happens, the ear becomes red again. Any noise causes renewed pallor. A whistle, a cry, a sound of any kind, the bark of a dog, a sunbeam suddenly penetrating into the cage, the shadow of a swiftly passing cloud, the flight of a distant bird, each suffices to produce a rapid loss of colour in the ears, shortly followed by a more vivid flush. We may therefore maintain that the circulation of blood in the ears reflects the psychic condition of the animal, and that nothing takes place either in itself or in its surroundings without immediately acting upon these blood-vessels.

Thus the fact observed by Schiff receives confirmation, but the explanation which I give of it differs from his. The dilatation and contraction of the arteries in the rabbit’s ear can no longer be compared to the movements of an accessory heart, and, in my opinion, correspond to the colour or pallor of the human face. In this manner the phenomenon is deprived of the exceptional character with which it was introduced into science, and takes its place amongst those observable in man and nearly all animals.

We may see the same phenomenon noticeable in the rabbit’s ear, in the cock’s comb and wittles; during emotion the fleshy protuberances and the skin on the neck of the turkey distinctly blush and grow pale, and in men and dogs not only the face but also the feet are subject to these changes of colour.

These things were unknown owing to insufficient observation. It was thought that animals did not blush, because the blood-vessels of their skin lie concealed under hair, feathers, or scales, and because the epidermis is less transparent and the pigment cells more abundant in the lower layers of the skin. And so blushing was deemed a privilege of man, which, however, is not the case. It suffices to study the face of the rabbit attentively in order to see that it is very sensitive, even to the slightest impressions. If one looks carefully at the nostrils and lips, considerable variations in the colour may be observed, corresponding to those occurring at the same time in the blood-vessels of the ear. These phenomena became so familiar to me during my study of rabbits, that I needed only observe the muzzle of the animal, and more particularly the tip, in order to know at once whether the ears were at that moment pale or red. This certainty was in part due to the alteration in the rhythm of breathing and in the movement of the nostrils produced by the slightest emotion, as also in man.

V

Many may regret that such a characteristic difference between man and the other animals should be effaced, and that we should try in cold blood to prove that what is most noble, beautiful, and human in our countenance, we have in common with the brutes. But we console ourselves with the reflection that poetry, enthusiasm, inspiration and passion rise again under new and stronger forms in the contemplation of reality, that in the search after truth there lies a fascination which beautifies and ennobles the human intelligence, and that sentiment is never extinguished by any advance of science.

To-day, when the experimental method is spreading so rapidly, it behoves us physiologists to be humble and to ask for hospitality in the studio of the artist, in the libraries of men of letters, in the drawing-rooms of cultured people, in order to diffuse the elementary principles of our science. The time has come when we must throw off our professorial robes, tie on our aprons, roll up our sleeves, and begin the vivisection of the human heart according to scientific methods.

Let the artist no longer confine himself to a blind imitation of nature, to a perpetual reproduction on canvas, in marble, or in books of the phenomena and forms of life; he must know the why and wherefore of things, completely or in part, the connection between cause and effect; he must convince himself that nothing is the result of chance and that there is a reason behind every phenomenon. Blushing—that ideal token of innocence and purity—is no accidental fact; it was not given to man as a sign of nobility, nor as a mirror to reflect the agitation of his heart; it is a fact rendered necessary by bodily functions and which the will can neither produce nor suppress. It is simply caused by the structure of our vital machine, by the activity of the blood-vessels in all organs and in all animals.

Darwin believed, on the contrary, that it was a phenomenon produced by means of the will. I consider it advisable to quote here in full the explanation which he gives of blushing, as no other naturalist made it the object of such special study, and because his hypothesis is at variance with the facts of my observation.

‘Men and women, and especially the young, have always valued, in a high degree, their personal appearance, and have likewise regarded the appearance of others. The face has been the chief object of attention, though, when man aboriginally went naked, the whole surface of his body would have been attended to. Our self-attention is excited almost exclusively by the opinion of others, for no person living in absolute solitude would care about his appearance. Everyone feels blame more acutely than praise. Now, whenever we know, or suppose, that others are depreciating our personal appearance, our attention is strongly drawn toward ourselves, more especially to our faces. The probable effect of this will be, as has just been explained, to excite into activity that part of the sensorium which receives the sensory nerves of the face; and this will react through the vaso-motor system on the facial capillaries. By frequent reiteration during numberless generations, the process will have become so habitual, in association with the belief that others are thinking of us, that even a suspicion of their depreciation suffices to relax the capillaries, without any conscious thought about our faces. With some sensitive persons it is enough even to notice their dress to produce the same effect. Through the force, also, of association and inheritance our capillaries are relaxed, whenever we know, or imagine, that anyone is blaming, though in silence, our actions, thoughts, or character; and, again, when we are highly praised.’

‘On this hypothesis we can understand how it is that the face blushes more than any other part of the body.’ ‘Of all expressions, blushing seems to be the most strictly human.’ ‘But it does not seem possible that any animal, until its mental powers had been developed to an equal or nearly equal degree with those of man, would have closely considered and been sensitive about its own personal appearance. Therefore we may conclude that blushing originated at a very late period in the long line of our descent.’[2]

I hold that this explanation of blushing is no longer tenable, and I think that perhaps Darwin himself would have accepted mine, since it seems to me truer, more in correspondence with the theory of evolution, more Darwinian, if I may be allowed the expression.

But why do we blush? some will ask, who insist on penetrating to the root of things. Why, under certain conditions, does the blood flow more abundantly into the rabbit’s ear and the human face? The answer to this question will be better understood when I have shown that the brain also becomes redder after an emotion. For the maintenance of life it is necessary that a dilatation of the blood-vessels should take place in all those organs in which a disturbance occurs. We all know that when our hand has been firmly squeezed, or when we have received a blow or contusion, the skin reddens at once. This change in the circulation is indispensable, for the more copious flow of blood to that part which has suffered an arrest of nutrition serves to renew the vital processes and to repair the damage caused by the injury. The same phenomena appear in the brain under psychic conditions. Emotion occasions greater energy in the chemical processes of the brain; there is a modification in the nutrition of the cells, the nervous force is more rapidly consumed, and therefore the expansion of the blood-vessels of head and brain tend, by a more abundant supply of blood, to preserve the activity of the nerve-centres.

It is in the tissues, in the properties of the living substances which constitute the vital machine, that we must seek the reasons of numerous phenomena which Darwin deduced from external causes, natural selection or environment. We shall endeavour to confine within much narrower limits the effects of chance, will, and accident, which play such an important part in Darwin’s theory. Nothing is the result of a creative force serving a premeditated end; organisms have formed and changed themselves through causes exclusively mechanical. Work perfects organisms, and the operative parts undergo, through their own activity, far-reaching modifications, which render their structure still more perfect.

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